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Published by: aravindpunna on Mar 31, 2013
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03/31/2013

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The Pearls of Loreto
I
 Within memory of the most gnarled and coffee-coloured Montereno never had there been so exciting a race day.All essential conditions seemed to have held counsel and agreed to combine. Not a wreath of fog floated acrossthe bay to dim the sparkling air. Every horse, every vaquero, was alert and physically perfect. The rains wereover; the dust was not gathered. Pio Pico, Governor of the Californias, was in Monterey on one of his brief infrequent visits. Clad in black velvet, covered with jewels and ropes of gold, he sat on his big chestnut horse atthe upper end of the field, with General Castro, Dona Modeste Castro, and other prominent Monterenos, hisinterest so keen that more than once the official dignity relaxed, and he shouted "Brava!" with the rest.And what a brilliant sight it was! The flowers had faded on the hills, for June was upon them; but gayer than thehills had been was the race-field of Monterey. Caballeros, with silver on their wide gray hats and on their saddles of embossed leather, gold and silver embroidery on their velvet serapes, crimson sashes about their slender waists, silver spurs and buckskin botas, stood tensely in their stirrups as the racers flew by, or, duringthe short intervals, pressed each other with eager wagers. There was little money in that time. The goldenskeleton within the sleeping body of California had not yet been laid bare. But ranchos were lost and won;thousands of cattle would pass to other hands at the next rodeo; many a superbly caparisoned steed would rear and plunge between the spurs of a new master.And caballeros were not the only living pictures of that memorable day of a time for ever gone. Beautifulwomen in silken fluttering gowns, bright flowers holding the mantilla from flushed awakened faces, sat their impatient horses as easily as a gull rides a wave. The sun beat down, making dark cheeks pink and white cheeksdarker, but those great eyes, strong with their own fires, never faltered. The old women in attendance grumbledvague remonstrances at all things, from the heat to intercepted coquetries. But their charges gave the goodduenas little heed. They shouted until their little throats were hoarse, smashed their fans, beat the sides of their mounts with their tender hands, in imitation of the vaqueros."It is the gayest, the happiest, the most careless life in the world," thought Pio Pico, shutting his teeth, as helooked about him. "But how long will it last? Curse the Americans! They are coming."But the bright hot spark that convulsed assembled Monterey shot from no ordinary condition. A stranger wasthere, a guest of General Castro, Don Vicente de la Vega y Arillaga, of Los Angeles. Not that a stranger wasmatter for comment in Monterey, capital of California, but this stranger had brought with him horses whichthreatened to disgrace the famous winners of the North. Two races had been won already by the black Southern beasts."Dios de mi alma!" cried the girls, one to the other, "their coats are blacker than our hair! Their nostrils pulselike a heart on fire! Their eyes flash like water in the sun! Ay! the handsome stranger, will he roll us in the dust?Ay! our golden horses, with the tails and manes of silver--how beautiful is the contrast with the vaqueros intheir black and silver, their soft white linen! The shame! the shame!--if they are put to shame! Poor Guido! Willhe lose this day, when he has won so many? But the stranger is so handsome! Dios de mi vida! his eyes are likedark blue stars. And he is so cold! He alone--he seems not to care. Madre de Dios! Madre de Dios! he winsagain! No! no! no! Yes! Ay! yi! yi! B-r-a-v-o!"Guido Cabanares dug his spurs into his horse and dashed to the head of the field, where Don Vicente sat at theleft of General Castro. He was followed hotly by several friends, sympathetic and indignant. As he rode, he toreoff his serape and flung it to the ground; even his silk riding-clothes sat heavily upon his fury. Don Vicentesmiled, and rode forward to meet him.
 
"At your service, senor," he said, lifting his sombrero."Take your mustangs back to Los Angeles!" cried Don Guido, beside himself with rage, the politeness anddignity of his race routed by passion. "Why do you bring your hideous brutes here to shame me in the eyes of Monterey? Why--""Yes! Why? Why?" demanded his friends, surrounding De la Vega. "This is not the humiliation of a man, but of the North by the accursed South! You even would take our capital from us! Los Angeles, the capital of theCalifornias!""What have politics to do with horse-racing?" asked De la Vega, coldly. "Other strangers have brought their horses to your field, I suppose.""Yes, but they have not won. They have not been from the South."By this time almost every caballero on the field was wheeling about De la Vega. Some felt with Cabanares,others rejoiced in his defeat, but all resented the victory of the South over the North."Will you run again?" demanded Cabanares."Certainly. Do you think of putting your knife into my neck?"Cabanares drew back, somewhat abashed, the indifference of the other sputtering like water on his passion."It is not a matter for blood," he said sulkily; "but the head is hot and words are quick when horses run neck toneck. And, by the Mother of God, you shall not have the last race. My best horse has not run. Viva El Rayo!""Viva El Rayo!" shouted the caballeros."And let the race be between you two alone," cried one. "The North or the South! Los Angeles or Monterey! Itwill be the race of our life.""The North or the South!" cried the caballeros, wheeling and galloping across the field to the donas. "Twentyleagues to a real for Guido Cabanares.""What a pity that Ysabel is not here!" said Dona Modeste Castro to Pio Pico. "How those green eyes of herswould flash to-day!""She would not come," said the Governor. "She said she was tired of the race.""Of whom do you speak?" asked De la Vega, who had rejoined them."Of Ysabel Herrera, La Favorita of Monterey," answered Pio Pico. "The most beautiful woman in theCalifornias, since Chonita Iturbi y Moncada, my Vicente. It is at her uncle's that I stay. You have heard mespeak of my old friend; and surely you have heard of her.""Ay!" said De la Vega. "I have heard of her.""Viva El Rayo!""Ay, the ugly brute!"
 
"What name? Vitriolo? Mother of God! Diablo or Demonio would suit him better. He looks as if he had been bred in hell. He will not stand the quirto; and El Rayo is more lightly built. We shall beat by a dozen lengths."The two vaqueros who were to ride the horses had stripped to their soft linen shirts and black velvet trousers,cast aside their sombreros, and bound their heads with tightly knotted handkerchiefs. Their spurs were fastenedto bare brown heels; the cruel quirto was in the hand of each; they rode barebacked, winding their wiry legs inand out of a horse-hair rope encircling the body of the animal. As they slowly passed the crowd on their way tothe starting-point at the lower end of the field, and listened to the rattling fire of wagers and comments, theylooked defiant, and alive to the importance of the coming event.El Rayo shone like burnished copper, his silver mane and tail glittering as if powdered with diamond-dust. Hewas long and graceful of body, thin of flank, slender of leg. With arched neck and flashing eyes, he walked withthe pride of one who was aware of the admiration he excited.Vitriolo was black and powerful. His long neck fitted into well-placed shoulders. He had great depth of girth,immense length from shoulder-points to hips, big cannon-bones, and elastic pasterns. There was neither amiability nor pride in his mien; rather a sullen sense of brute power, such as may have belonged to the knightsof the Middle Ages. Now and again he curled his lips away from the bit and laid his ears back as if he intendedto eat of the elegant Beau Brummel stepping so daintily beside him. Of the antagonistic crowd he took not theslightest notice."The race begins! Holy heaven!" The murmur rose to a shout--a deep hoarse shout strangely crossed andrecrossed by long silver notes; a thrilling volume of sound rising above a sea of flashing eyes and parted lipsand a vivid moving mass of colour.Twice the horses scored, and were sent back. The third time they bounded by the starting-post neck and neck,nose to nose. Jose Abrigo, treasurer of Monterey, dashed his sombrero, heavy with silver eagles, to the ground,and the race was begun.Almost at once the black began to gain. Inch by inch he fought his way to the front, and the roar with which thecrowd had greeted the start dropped into the silence of apprehension.El Rayo was not easily to be shaken off. A third of the distance had been covered, and his nose was abreast of Vitriolo's flank. The vaqueros sat as if carved from sun-baked clay, as lightly as if hollowed, watching eachother warily out of the corners of their eyes.The black continued to gain. Halfway from home light was visible between the two horses. The pace becameterrific, the excitement so intense that not a sound was heard but that of racing hoofs. The horses swept onwardlike projectiles, the same smoothness, the same suggestion of eternal flight. The bodies were extended until thetense muscles rose under the satin coats. Vitriolo's eyes flashed viciously; El Rayo's strained withdetermination. Vitriolo's nostrils were as red as angry craters; El Rayo's fluttered like paper in the wind.Three-quarters of the race was run, and the rider of Vitriolo could tell by the sound of the hoof-beats behind himthat he had a good lead of at least two lengths over the Northern champion. A smile curled the corners of hisheavy lips; the race was his already.Suddenly El Rayo's vaquero raised his hand, and down came the maddening quirto, first on one side, then onthe other. The spurs dug; the blood spurted. The crowd burst into a howl of delight as their favourite responded.Startled by the sound, Vitriolo's rider darted a glance over his shoulder, and saw El Rayo bearing down uponhim like a thunder-bolt, regaining the ground that he had lost, not by inches, but by feet. Two hundred pacesfrom the finish he was at the black's flanks; one hundred and fifty, he was at his girth; one hundred, and the

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